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Peace Corps takes cook on difficult, rewarding journey

Norwalk Reflector Staff • Oct 29, 2015 at 12:46 PM

It is hard to image two places more different than Millersburg, Ohio and Fuling, China.

Millersburg, in the heart of Ohio's Amish Country, has a population of a little more than 3,000 people, 95 percent of whom are white. Fuling, located in the Chongqing province, is considered a "small town" of 300,000 people. Yet Vermilion resident Nicole Weigand has called them both home.

Weigand, 25, recently returned from a more than two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where she taught English and trained teachers at Fuling Normal University. She joined the Peace Corps after graduating from Ohio University in 2004 in order to learn about other cultures and help create positive change in the world.

"I wanted to show people what real American culture is like, not just what we see in the White House and in Hollywood," she said. "But the biggest changes were in me, that's something I didn't anticipate. I learned a lot about myself, about my strength and limitations."

One of the most difficult challenges was the constant attention she received because of her skin and hair color, as well as dealing with "people everywhere."

One of the stark differences between the cultures was the family relationships, which are much tighter in China.

"Nursing homes are unheard of people have extended family living in their homes. It was not unusual to live with parents after marriage and beyond," Weigand said. Because the family circle is so tight, it is often difficult for strangers to gain acceptance, but, she added "the Chinese people can be warm and caring."

Another huge change was the food.

"Oh my goodness, my fist meal in China was meat grilled on a stick so spicy, you couldn't even taste the meat," she laughed. "My Midwestern stomach couldn't always handle the spicy food."

However, Weigand learned to cook quite a bit of Chinese food during her service. At different times, Weigand stayed with a Chinese family who helped her adjust to the culture including the cuisine.

"Absolutely nothing I would have recognized from an American Chinese restaurant menu ever appeared in my meals in China," she said.

Her featured dish was one of the constants of her Chinese meals Kung Pao Chicken, also referred to as Gong Bao Ji Ding.

"The dishes of the region I was in were primarily very spicy with a lot of pork, chicken and vegetables. Kung Pao Chicken was absolutely a staple in our diets," Weigand said.

For anyone considering joining the Peace Corps, Weigand said it is a challenging, but worthwhile experience.

"It's important to know what you're getting into. It's not easy and it takes real strength of character, but it is something that will change your life forever and you probably won't regret," she said. "Peace Corps has been the most significant experience in my life, and I would absolutely do it again in a heartbeat."

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